I wish I could remember the moment I first learned about the Bechdel test.
I’m sure it was somewhere in the middle of two writing degrees when I heard there was a fun, cool way to gauge female representation in film and television. Not to be melodramatic or anything, but it changed my life. At the time, I was a somewhat cringey writer struggling to find a voice and thought that the manic pixie dream girls of films like Garden State and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind were the epitome of writing, or at the very least, what audiences wanted to see. (Be gentle, I was a young thing.) And yes, I know the topic of manic pixie dream girls could be a post all its own.
What I do remember is what the Bechdel test did for me. It opened my eyes to gender stereotypes in media and showed how poorly many female characters were being developed (or underdeveloped) and how rarely they were allowed to have agency in film and TV. And I believe this awareness made me a better writer.
Do you want to know how this simple concept can help you and your writing? I’ll tell you, but first…
Bechdel test? What is it?
Alison Bechdel is a cartoonist who rose to prominence with Dykes to Watch Out For, a popular comic strip. It was in one 1985 installment called “The Rule” that she accidentally created a huge new segment of media commentary.
To pass the test, a film or TV episode has to satisfy three points. They must:
- Include at least two women
- Who have at least one conversation
- About something other than a man
And that’s it! This should be ridiculously easy, right? After all, women are human beings who have relationships and vibrant lives outside of their interactions with men. Capturing that onscreen should pose no problem at all.
Except it is a problem, and a lot of creators miss the mark.
Alison Bechdel created the test in collaboration with her friend Liz Wallace (it could also be called the bechdel wallace test), and they were both inspired by writer Virginia Woolf, who in her 1929 essay “A Room of One’s Own” noted that she rarely saw “women represented as friends” in works of fiction. Instead, women were shown only “in their relation to men.”
Alison Bechdel’s comic draws on the spirit of Woolf’s writing and highlights the fact that little changed in fiction from 1929 to 1985. And unfortunately, we’re still seeing similar issues in media today.
Check out our video for some more quick background on it before we continue.
Bechdel test results: movies that fail
Personally, I love looking at movies, TV shows, or scripts that get things wrong. I find it inspiring and instructive. So let’s get inspired and instructed by looking at a few of the movies that fail.
One amazing reference for this area of study is the Bechdel Test Movie List, a regularly updated database of films that gives out Bechdel passes and fails, and usually includes commentary on why a film is graded a certain way. Sometimes movies barely scrape by. For instance, A Star Is Born passes because Lady Gaga’s character shares a few lines with a stage manager in a scene I barely remember. It’s a technical pass but by no means a shining example of female characters interacting in a meaningful way.
Some movies fail in the same manner, by a very slim margin or on a technicality. Maybe the movie’s cast is too spare, and female characters just never make it into a scene together. One hotly debated example of a failed film would be Gravity. The movie is widely considered to be a feminist work. It has a female protagonist. But that’s about it for the cast. Sandra Bullock is alone most of the film, and her most impactful conversations are with George Clooney’s character, a man. By the strictest definition, it fails.
Some say the test should not be applied to movies with such slim casts. Perhaps that’s true, but another point could be made that Clooney’s character could have easily been a woman. Boom. Test passed.
Other movies that fail do so in more egregious fashion. Take 2012’s The Avengers. Here you have some pretty big female players, including Pepper Potts, Natasha Romanoff, and Agent Maria Hill.
Do they ever interact?
No. Could they have? Easily! (Age of Ultron and Infinity War both pass, but just barely.)
Excuses can be made on this side of the spectrum too, for movies like Avengers with large casts and lots of action. But I’m pretty sure the men in this film get to have some significant conversations.
What a failing grade means here is that the writers are more interested in giving the central characters the big emotional beats. So the Avengers themselves (who are mostly dudes, and hey, Nick Fury gets to hang around too) are going to be having the arguments, the confessions, and the character growth. Pepper and Maria exist mostly as extensions of Tony and SHIELD, so maybe the assumption is that there’s no way to incorporate them into a scene like this organically.
You have some pretty heavy stuff in this scene. Male posturing, discussion of a suicide attempt. And what's Black Widow doing?
My point is, if the writers don’t bother to keep the women around and don't give them lines, they don’t even get the chance to converse, and therefore the movie can’t pass the test!
One other thing I have to say here is that just because a film like The Avengers fails, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie with poorly constructed female characters. Black Widow is still a compelling character with strong traits and interesting motivations.
Another movie series that unfortunately fails pretty hard is the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Even though there are fully formed, wonderful, active female characters in this world who impact the story in huge ways, they just never get to talk to each other. And most of the main characters are male, which is probably a byproduct of author J. R. R. Tolkien’s time period. This doesn’t change the fact that he wrote some great female characters too, and these are beautiful and highly complex films. Can you tell I’m a Lord of the Rings fan? Let’s continue.
How it applies to TV
I also want to point out that even in TV, where there is plenty of space to play around and shuffle character groups so that you’re sure your ladies are interacting, there are still failures.
Let’s look at a particularly popular show. Does Stranger Things pass the Bechdel test? The simple answer is no, especially where season one is concerned.
Sure, there are several strong females in the series, Eleven clearly at the center. And if you’re nitpicky, you can probably find a couple of places where characters like Nancy might share words with a female classmate, but not in any meaningful scene. In season two, even with the addition of Max, the show has an Avengers problem. Most of the ladies are kept alone and isolated in male-dominated storylines, and even Eleven is reduced to a romantic interest.
Okay, okay, Eleven does talk to Kali about their shared past in “The Lost Sister,” but I personally choose to pretend that episode doesn’t exist. Moving on.
Movies that pass!
Oh boy, here’s my chance to talk about all my favorite movies and hold them up as bastions of filmmaking! And these are movies that pass! Let’s start with Independence Day.
I’m not kidding, I flippin’ love this movie. I love it so much it was part of my bachelorette party. Again, not kidding.
It’s a film that balances a large cast without being overwhelming, handles sci-fi elements with the perfect tone, and just features some really good writing on multiple levels. Plus: Jeff Goldblum.
Independence Day passes through several scenes. In one, Jasmine and Tiffany (both exotic dancers) talk about the recently arrived aliens. Tiffany eagerly wants to join a welcome party near one ship, but Jasmine warns her off.
The thing about this scene is that it could have been played off as insensitive or a throwaway moment, especially considering the women’s profession and how it’s often portrayed with disrespect.
But instead, the interaction highlights their humanity and two very different personalities. Tiffany is young and irresponsible, while Jasmine, a mother, is concerned and wants her to be safe. We could have met Tiffany as an airhead dancer who then is promptly killed in a death-ray bloodbath. But the script instead works a little harder to make her death impactful and emotional, something that matters to the audience because another character cares.
A second very smart choice the film makes is to later put Jasmine and the injured First Lady together. What a great scene! I love to see characters who would normally never interact get together and have their world views shifted just by learning about each other. The First Lady gets to hear about a woman’s life in a profession she’s not familiar with.
Again, here all the script really needs is for the dying First Lady to get discovered so she can get back to her family. Any no-name character could have found her, but instead, it was Jasmine.
These scenes don’t make Independence Day a perfect film or feminist movie. Are these just small moments in a mostly male-dominated story? Yes, but I don’t care, this is one of my favorite movies and I will live and die on this hill!
A more recent and perhaps better example of a movie that passes with flying colors is Eighth Grade. It’s a nuanced, sensitive portrayal of young womanhood that gets so many things right. Thirteen-year-old protagonist Kayla likes guys and sometimes talks about her crush, but the film understands that there’s so much more going on in her life. She’s about to start high school, she’s uncomfortable in her body, she struggles to make friends, she lives her life online.
In her story, she very realistically tries to connect with a popular girl in her class. And fails. Later, she finds friendship with a high school mentor. She talks about things she enjoys, how she wants to be perceived, the goals she has for herself, and some of her fears. You know, things humans bring up in conversation.
As I mentioned above, the test has caveats. So just because there are movies that pass doesn’t also mean that they are good movies.
As I mentioned above, the test has caveats. So just because there are movies that pass doesn’t also mean that they are good movies. For instance, Netflix has been churning out their versions of Hallmark holiday fare, which resulted in the Vanessa Hudgens starrer The Princess Switch. And it passes.
I watched this thing (FOR RESEARCH) and the two identical female protagonists do converse with each other and several female characters about their lives. For example, Stacy has a heart-to-heart with Lady Margaret’s minder, Mrs. Donatelli, learning about her dedication to the duchess. It’s the tiniest bit of character development, and I give an A for effort to the writers. But these efforts and a passing Bechdel result do not make this a feminist manifesto.
And as our video points out, even the song “Baby Got Back” technically passes. So there you go.
How can this help your writing
Okay, so we’ve gone through a lot about movies that fail and movies that pass it. What can we take away from all this? What is the Bechdel test’s potential impact on a writer or filmmaker? How can we use it?
One easy thing to do is to just include women in your stories.
Is it still okay to write a film with just one male character? You want to write All Is Lost or Cast Away? Go for it! But if you’re writing a more traditional story, and a main character is interacting with any sort of extended cast, and they’re all turning out to be men, ask yourself why. Are you by default giving supporting roles to dudes? Could women perform the same roles? Would a woman bring something different to an interaction? Would multiple women? Just let women be involved where it makes sense.
Another simple element to remember is that women are fully formed humans with lives outside of their male counterparts, and that should be reflected in your writing. Yes, your stories should still be focused, and yes, dialogue should be tight and relevant to the themes and plots of your scripts. You don’t need to include a random conversation between ladies just to pass the test.
But consider your characters’ feelings and goals, and know that real people sometimes talk about those feelings and goals. Can a woman have feelings and goals related to a man? Yes, absolutely, and you should still write about those things if you want. But don’t write a character as if those things are all-consuming to her. Why does she have those feelings? Why does she want that goal? Having these elements in mind will lead to fuller characters and more realistic conversations.
Other options for looking at female representation
What is the Bechdel test’s weakness? As we’ve discussed, the test is just one way to gauge how females are represented in works of fiction. It is not a clear indicator of how feminist or even how good a work is. It also doesn’t take representation into account.
Some key industry figures have devised new tests to encompass a broader spectrum of issues.
Writer/producer Ligiah Villalobos said a movie should have a Latina lead who is not sexualized, speaks unaccented English, and is shown as professional and educated to pass her test.
Other tests look at film crews, other ways women are included in a cast, or how female protagonists are written. Some tests are complicated, and some are simple.
The main takeaway? If you’re doing your very best to create a fictional world that adequately reflects reality and the richness of all the people around you, you’re doing fine. The Bechdel test is not the end-all-be-all, but keeping it in mind will help direct your attention to issues that might not be obvious in your early drafts. And there are always ways to get better!